Photograph by Mikkel Vang
From the October 2011 issue of National Geographic Traveler
Barton Seaver is on a mission: to change how we eat seafood so there will always be seafood in the ocean left to eat. That means substituting lesser known species for overfished varieties (such as cod and shrimp) and serving smaller portions dressed up with vegetables and spices. Seaver, a 32-year-old National Geographic Fellow and author of the cookbook For Cod and Country, has helmed several notable restaurants in his hometown of Washington, D.C. At one, he managed to serve 78 different species of seafood over the course of a year. Seaver, a busy traveler, was first inspired by a journey to coastal Morocco, where generations have lived off the sea and sustainable fishing is a way of life.
How do you connect with the average diner? The oceans are in dire trouble, mostly because we’ve eaten too many of the fish in them. When I was growing up, I spent my summers in a house on Maryland’s Patuxent River. My brother and I would pull large male crabs off the pier pilings, throwing back the females. We’d fish for striped bass and bluefish right off the dock. By the time I became a chef, crabs were expensive, and most were coming from Venezuela. Striped bass was altogether unavailable; there was a moratorium on fishing for it. Bluefish populations had been decimated. I realized that the bounty I experienced as a child had gone away in 10 or 15 years.
One reason is that most people no longer relate to the oceans. Travelers used to have to cross the ocean in a boat to get to Europe. Now we board a plane, go to sleep, and wake up on the other side. We’ve lost our connection. The damage we’re wreaking goes unnoticed. But people do value having seafood on their plates. So instead of saying I’m trying to save fish, I tell them I’m trying to save dinner.
What role does the chef play? Chefs are the guiding hands of natural selection. For example, over the past 30 years they popularized bluefin tuna. That used to be cat food, a trash fish. Chefs popularized monkfish and put Chilean sea bass on almost every fine-dining menu in the country. It was chefs who took a little-known species of slimehead and recast it into the now popular orange roughy. Thirty-five years ago, those fish names didn’t exist in our cultural lexicon. But if chefs have the power to destroy, we can also restore, engage our customers in a healthy, economically viable relationship with our oceans.
What are your goals for your cookbook? I wrote it to encourage Americans to eat more fish. Seafood is a delicious, healthy product that we should eat mindfully. I prepare about 40 species in the book; most chefs would have trouble naming 30; most customers, 20. Just ten species represent 85 percent of the fish we eat. The book teaches about cooking side dishes of vegetables and their vast array of tastes, textures, and colors. The protein, that is, the fish, is easy to cook and will always take the center of the plate. The vegetables are the supporting cast of flavors that really makes the difference. It’s the cream of zucchini with mint and sorrel underneath and the cachet of carrot, raisin, and almond salsa on top that makes the seared piece of barramundi so much fun to eat. You’ve got the crunch of the carrot, the soft sweetness of the raisins, the permeating aroma of the almond oil, and the creamed preparation with its lemony bite.
What else are you doing? My most fun work is lecturing at Harvard Medical School to physicians, clinicians, and public health officials. Hey, you want smart kids? Great. Feed them lots of heart-healthy anchovies and sardines. They’re delicious and cheap, available nationwide from corner bodegas in Harlem to Walmarts and 7-Elevens. High blood pressure? Take half a dozen oysters and call me in the morning. We’re beginning to use seafood as preventatives, as curatives, as restoratives.
How have your travels affected you? One of my great learning experiences was in the Moroccan seaside town of Essaouira. I found these small shacks where men were grilling seafood just beyond a rampart where waves were crashing. I didn’t speak the language, but because I spoke food fluently, I was able to communicate. We went back and forth about olive oil, fire, and fish. Through that connection, I began to create a relationship with these cooks and fishermen. It was a kind of aimless travel, with no specific tour nor even a return flight booked, but it allowed for in-depth relations and it was a great education. That’s where I learned that saving the oceans is a humanitarian issue. In the U.S., we ask, “What shall we have for dinner?” Elsewhere in the world, they ask, “Will there be dinner?” These fishermen were casting nets in hopes of catching dinner, not dollars.
Have other places touched you like that? In my travels, I’ve seen civil wars, natural disasters, poverty, despair, and different forms of government. But Cuba was so surprising. The people are joyful, honest, and respectful but struggle for fundamental things we take for granted in America: the right to express themselves, to debate, to work for what they deserve, to follow their passions and dreams. The situation was heartbreaking but inspiring, because the people hang on to their joy. They live for the future. They pour everything into their children. Everyone is waiting for their opportunity to bloom and to flourish.
Would you ever go back to running a restaurant? No. I’m devoted now to getting people to care about the oceans. My passions have evolved past what a restaurant kitchen alone can provide. Frankly, a typical restaurant is not reality. While most of your readers may be able to afford a $25 entrée, that isn’t the state of the world. I’m trying to broaden the message, to speak to people as a cook and not as a chef. A cook has a more elemental, universal role, offering the communion of food to humanity.
Keith Bellows is the editor of Traveler.